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An important lesson on privilege, courtesy of Peter Beinart

In a recent article comparing Jewish anti-occupation activists IfNotNow with Black Lives Matter, the prominent Jewish American columnist creates divisions precisely where alliances are needed.

By Tom Pessah

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The word privilege gets thrown around a lot in activist circles. People tend to interpret its use as an accusation, which it sometimes is. But reflection about privilege can also be a crucial tool for building social justice movements across different groups that enjoy unequal resources.

Those of us carrying privilege around need not apologize for it, — you can’t blame yourself your social location. However, by taking responsibility for it and reflecting on one’s ingrained behavior, one can increase their chances of working with people from different backgrounds to rectify the inequality that created these privileges.

In other words, as Spiderman was famously told, with great power comes great responsibility.

In a well intentioned column in The Forward this week, titled “IfNotNow Is The Jewish Black Lives Matter,” Jewish American journalist Peter Beinart is creating divisions precisely where alliances are needed. Not principled divisions, but divisions resulting from a lack of sensitivity and awareness of his own privilege. (IfNotNow issued a response to the piece, and INN’s Philadelphia chapter put out a statement of their own.)

In the article, Beinart, who deserves credit for compellingly broadening the conversation about Israel within the Jewish American community, sets out to highlight activist groups pressuring the Jewish establishment to end its complacency with the occupation. While doing so, however, he also manages to offend a range of groups that could be potential allies for the politics he is promoting.

Here is a list of just some of those groups, in no particular order:

African-American Jews. Beinart’s first paragraph is “I spent last Shabbat with students from Harvard Hillel and was reminded, again, how important a generational movement IfNotNow is becoming. I don’t think most older American Jews grasp it yet. This is our Black Lives Matter. IfNotNow is the Jewish wing of a youth-powered activist awakening that the United States has not seen since the 1960s.”

Which group does the word “our” refer to, in the phrase “our Black Lives Matter”? Clearly, Beinart is referring to Jews, or more precisely, he is equating Jews with white Jews, as if there are no Jews who don’t already feel Black Lives Matter is their own movement. The binary between Jews and African Americans appears again and again throughout the article. This, of course, is reflective of a widespread tendency in the Jewish American community to make Jews of color, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews invisible.

African Americans in general. When the Movement for Black Lives platform came out, Beinart objected to its use of the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, tweeting: “@Blklivesmatter has every right to criticize Israel. But ‘genocide’? Bring solidarity. Don’t bring stupid.”  Here is one of the biggest grassroots movements of our lifetime, founded by young African-American women – and Beinart is speaking to them in the imperative (“bring solidarity”) and calling them “stupid.”

Fast-forward a year and Beinart is now using Black Lives Matter as a means of praising IfNotNow’s groundbreaking activism.

Later, IfNotNow is compared to the Black Panthers and J Street to nothing less than Martin Luther King. The complete lack of reflection on privilege is what makes this analogy so offensive. MLK was willing to die for his principles, and was indeed assassinated; many Black Panther leaders were murdered or forced into exile. Neither J Street nor IfNotNow are facing brutal state repression. This position of relative privilege should make clear why evoking the experiences of these movements is so inappropriate.

Arab Americans. IfNotNow is doing an incredibly valuable job of challenging the Jewish establishment and calling on it to end their support for the occupation. They deserve all the support they can get – this is literally about saving lives. But support doesn’t require ignorance of privilege.

On February 16, Jewish American activists from IfNotNow disrupted the confirmation hearing of David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel. They were joined by two Arab American activists, who called on Friedman to remember Palestinians. Only the two Arab Americans were criminally charged, and they now face jail and a $500 fine.

When Beinart presents IfNotNow’s actions as peak radicalism, he also makes this power differential invisible. This isn’t the fault of the IfNotNow activists, but it must be explicitly acknowledged if Jewish activists want to retain links with other groups.

Palestinians. Considering how often Beinart gets criticized by the Jewish American establishment, some of his Jewish readers may imagine he is seen as a champion by Palestinians. That is simply not the case.

While Beinart is an outspoken critic of the occupation, he has also written that he isn’t “asking [Israel] to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

The right of return is a personal one for most Palestinian Americans who lost their homes and land in 1948, does not necessarily mean displacing Israelis, and ignoring it means splitting Jews opposing the occupation from the Palestinians who are its primary victims. A Jewish-only movement to end the occupation alone will inevitably be weaker than a united movement could have been. Jews, after all, should not position themselves as the primary experts on the occupation and how to resolve it.

None of this is to mock Beinart, indulge in call-out culture, or even to take away from the important work he has done, and continues to do. Rather, it is crucial to challenge prominent voices in the hopes that they can do better. While pieces like his are shared and celebrated by well-meaning activists, they also offend, divide and weaken a movement that needs all the support it can get.

Beinart at least recognizes the potential value of forging ties with groups other than his own. For many others, this will require some self-reflection on privilege, which should lead people to adopt a new, more sensitive etiquette. We have no time to waste.

Tom Pessah is a sociologist and activist.

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    1. JeffB

      Well I guess it is time to congratulate INN. This is the 3rd of 4th article I’ve seen this week from SJP / JVPers being critical of them for not adopting the hard left’s solidarity stance. I suspect JVP is kinda freaked out that there might be a group capable of replacing them or at least competing with them. For those who don’t know Tom Pessah is a Israeli Jewish SJPer BDS supporter. I’m not sure if he is JVP or not but certainly same mindset.

      — or more precisely, he is equating Jews with white Jews, as if there are no Jews who don’t already feel Black Lives Matter is their own movement.

      Or more reasonably he is equating the Jewish American Jewish community collectively with Ashkenazi Jews since it is overwhelming Ashkenazi, run by Ashkenazi and reflects Ashkenazi interests. While black Jews exist in America they are rare and don’t set the tone for the Jewish community. I’m sure there are some Jewish blacks in black lives matter but that is irrelevant. The two communities react to one another as disjoint, the overlap is non-impactful on either group. I will comment that this article for +972 has a turnaround is fair play, where I’m being lectured by an Israeli on American Jewish / Black race relations though.

      — Here is one of the biggest grassroots movements of our lifetime, founded by young African-American women – and Beinart is speaking to them in the imperative (“bring solidarity”) and calling them “stupid.”

      And he was right. The genocide argument buried almost everything else about the platform. What BLM activists had seen as a throwaway term ended up being something they had to defend again and again and again in the press. It ended up being incredibly divisive towards supporters of the movement to get someone other than country DA’s to be the prosecuting attorney for police involved deaths, their primary goal.

      — Only the two Arab Americans were criminally charged, and they now face jail and a $500 fine.

      How do you know that had to do with privilege and not other variables like age or prior arrests?

      — The right of return … does not necessarily mean displacing Israelis, and ignoring it means splitting Jews opposing the occupation from the Palestinians who are its primary victims….

      Dude I hate to break it to you. We are the side doing the oppressing they are the side being oppressed. Of course we are split. The Jewish left / right debate is essentially about how generous the offers to the Palestinians should be. The Palestinian left / right debate is essentially about what’s the minimum they should accept. Those are entirely different roles and debates. That’s the core of the split, minor changes in language can’t / won’t fix that. They only become unsplit as the offers implicit or explicit get accepted and Palestinians and Jews start to share mostly common interests.

      — A Jewish-only movement to end the occupation alone will inevitably be weaker than a united movement could have been.

      This is the core argument between JVP and INN. I think you need to defend this point not just assume it. I think INN is vastly more effective because they can have an in-group conversation and aren’t compromised by solidarity. You obviously disagree, and that’s fine but it is non obvious.

      — Jews, after all, should not position themselves as the primary experts on the occupation and how to resolve it.

      The way it gets resolved is Jews decide they no longer need to keep doing it. Of course they are primary experts! Who do you think is doing the occupation?

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom P.

        to clarify, nowhere did this post criticize INN for not adopting a solidarity stance. It criticized Peter Beinart for explicitly *rejecting* equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Right of Return. INN do not explicitly reject either of those.

        regarding another of your points, I am aware of some of the arrogance that comes from being Israeli, which can lead, for instance, to ignoring real issues of anti-Semitism that American Jews face. But pointing out (also as a Mizrachi Jew who lived in the U.S. for 7 years and experienced these dynamics first-hand) that African American Jews do exist isn’t “lecturing” Americans.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Tom

          Glad you responded.

          nowhere did this post criticize INN for not adopting a solidarity stance. It criticized Peter Beinart for explicitly *rejecting* equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Right of Return. INN do not explicitly reject either of those.

          OK I can see how it can be read that way. Since neither Beinart nor INN has a solidarity stance it was ambiguous. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I’m having trouble how statements like, “This isn’t the fault of the IfNotNow activists, but it must be explicitly acknowledged if Jewish activists want to retain links with other groups.” isn’t a critique of INN but only of Beinart though. That sounds like a criticism of not wanting to be in solidarity by INN.

          But pointing out (also as a Mizrachi Jew who lived in the U.S. for 7 years and experienced these dynamics first-hand) that African American Jews do exist isn’t “lecturing” Americans.

          I agree that comment wouldn’t be lecturing. That would be a legitimate grievance about being ignored. Talking about how the American Jewish community should relate to the American Black community is lecturing. I hope you can see the difference. Individuals existing doesn’t change the dynamic of the relationship until those individuals become numerous enough and powerful enough to meaningfully influence both communities, which may never happen and certainly hasn’t happened yet.

          Now I’ll respond to the specific points. American Jews by and large don’t consider Mizrahi or Sephardic Judaism to be distinct branches that should be preserved. For Americans the divisions in Judaism aren’t ethnic but rather denominational. American Jews in the late 19th-early 20th century eliminated the distinction between German and Russian Jews. Reform and Conservative Judaism where this played out originally don’t distinguish ethnically and both groups absorbed new ethnicities comfortably. For Americans (including American Jews) race is about skin tone and identification. Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews are not Jews of color unless they look dark enough to be able to choose to identify that way and/or are dark enough that they have no choice but to identify that way. Being Mizrahi or Sephardic doesn’t make a Jew any less white then being Ashkenazi. We don’t consider Catholics from Spain or Italy black. Jews as a whole moved form being “of color” to white in the 1940s and that effected all of at the same time.

          This sort transformation isn’t unique to Jews. The Roma for example have found American’s attitude about race helpful in describing why there is no anti Gypsy racism in American, “For Americans Gypsy is a profession not a race. People can’t discriminate against you if they don’t believe you exist.” So yes I get you were in America. But you were in the article and in this response still thinking like a foreigner when it comes to race.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Tom P.

      so again, the post wasn’t about criticizing INN. What I wrote was that “IfNotNow is doing an incredibly valuable job of challenging the Jewish establishment and calling on it to end their support for the occupation. They deserve all the support they can get – this is literally about saving lives. But support doesn’t require ignorance of privilege.”

      In other words, when writing about the subject, it’s necessary to take the power dynamic into account. Beinart didn’t, which is what I pointed out. I clearly did not blame INN for the existence of this power dynamic, or for ignoring it.

      Regarding your second point, I stand by my statement that there is “a widespread tendency in the Jewish American community to make Jews of color, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews invisible.” Nothing here implies that all Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews in the U.S. identify as Jews of Color. All I said was that these various groups do exist, and that they are often made to feel invisible. This is a pretty widespread sentiment, I didn’t invent it

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom P.

        the post has now been updated (fourth paragraph), adding If Not Now’s responses to the Beinart article.

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Tom P

        Well we are going to end up agreeing here somewhat. I agree that Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews are invisible in the American conversation. But again talking about power (privilege) they are invisible in part because they are non-impactful on American Jewish politics and intra group relations. I think you are accepting that dynamic exits. Moreover they shouldn’t be conflated with “Jews of color” because most of them aren’t “of color”. Considering all Mizrahi Jews to be “black Jews” is an Israeli thing not an American thing. Here they are just Jews who don’t like lox. 🙂

        As an aside I can now respond to part of the article:

        Only the two Arab Americans were criminally charged, and they now face jail and a $500 fine.

        We now know why. The Jewish demonstrators took a plea deal the two Arabs did not. Same deal was offered to everyone, they responded differently. Of course there is some interesting sociology there as to why all the Jews reacted one way and all the Arabs reacted another way when confronted with identical situations. But the implication of institutional discrimination which has been floating around has been falsified.

        Reply to Comment
        • Tom P.

          “Herzallah and El-Hosseiny — the only two Arabs in the group of six protesters who were arrested on Feb. 16 — were also the only two charged with a misdemeanor. Three white Jewish protesters were allowed to pay a small fine the same day. One white Jewish protester had his case transferred to traffic court. The two AMP staffers were the only two facing criminal charges in DC Superior Court filed against them by the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

          http://www.ampalestine.org/newsroom/amp-staffers-reject-plea-deal-friedman-nomination-protest-arrest



          Of the six protesters who disrupted the Senate foreign relations committee confirmation hearing of Ambassador David Friedman on Feb. 16, 2017, only the Arab demonstrators were criminally charged. The others were released after posting bail, and an additional protester was sent to traffic court.
          http://mondoweiss.net/2017/04/disrupting-confirmation-protesters/#sthash.FefMFuxH.dpuf

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Tom P

            We don’t disagree on the facts you are presenting. That’s common in USA criminal cases. Only 2% of USA cases go to any sort of trial. Most are pled. The common way this is handled is:

            a) The DA can charge you with a serious crime X1.
            b) The defense attorney (or sometimes the DA) offers a lesser charge X2 in exchange for a guilty plea.
            c1) The defendant agrees to plead to X2.
            c2) The defendant does not agree and there is then a trial based on X1

            What’s what happened here. The Jewish defendants took the guilty plea to X2 while the Arab defendants are pleading not guilty to X1. Why the Jews took the pleas is obvious. Why the Arabs didn’t is less obvious. But there is no ethnic discrimination here, the distinction was created by the different behavior of the defendants.

            Reply to Comment
          • Tom P.

            @JeffB I checked again with one of the people who was prosecuted and your theory isn’t accurate. Three of the white Jewish protesters were given the option of paying bail on the spot, while only the Arab American protesters and one more white Jewish one were charged and had a court hearing set up. Then the case of the remaining Jewish protester was transferred to traffic court, so that the only ones who faces criminal charges were the Arab protesters. Only then were the Arab protesters offered a plea deal within the context of being criminally charged unlike anybody else, and they refused to accept this offer on account of the discrimination. The Arab protesters were not given the same options as the white Jewish ones, who weren’t charged with serious crimes.
            I really want to recommend that you don’t share speculations if you’re not sure of what happened, it’s misleading and time-consuming.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @TomP

            You obviously have better sources than I do. I don’t know any involved. So let’s start from facts and you tell me where you disagree. 6 were arrested.

            2 Arabs from AMP (both male)
            3 Jews from INN (one female, two male)
            1 Jew from CODEPink (female)

            2 of the INNers and the CODEPinker paid a fine and left (i.e they pled guilty to a lesser charge). The 1 INNer and 2 AMPers didn’t. Now you are presenting new information that those 3 weren’t offered the plea rather than offering and having refused. That obviously changes things from my theory if true. But it still leaves the question if this was pure racism (your contention) why the 1 INNer wasn’t offered the option of the small fine?

            One of the AMPers, Taher Herzallah, was the leader of the Irvine 11 and so had a prior (though in state court). Which might be the reason for a more serious charge for him. The two AMPers are both staffers while the 4 Jews were not (a possible reason that DA might have looked at them differently). CODEPink is a much more regular protestor at Senate events than either of the other two groups, so if anyone is likely to have multiple priors it was the CODEPinker. The female INNer does not have priors, don’t know about the 2 males. The 1 INNer who hadn’t paid the fine was sent to traffic court during the arraignment the 2 AMPers both pled not guilty to what was then a misdemeanor not a violation. Trial is set to begin April 20th.

            Do we agree on the facts? And if you have inside information, any idea what happened with the 1 INNer and why they were treated differently than the other INNers? I should say I find the AMPers description that they had no contact prior to arraignment and there was no attempt to interview or interrogate unlikely. Do they have any idea why.

            BTW asserting racial privilege is also “speculating”. There are a lot of variables at play here: paid vs. volunteer, 3 sets of political agendas, race, sex, priors vs. no priors, frequency of protest at the senate…

            Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Thank you, Tom Pessah, for this thoughtful analysis of the things Peter Beinart overlooks or just doesn’t see. With respect to privilege. I think it is acute the way you explain how neither J Street nor IfNotNow are facing anything like what Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers faced.

      On another level though I think it is not quite fair to Beinart to read him as making Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews invisible. He may do that in a hundred other places and ways but not here. Because here is talking only really about degrees of radicalism and how they evolve under conditions where less radical solutions are suppressed. Isn’t that the true comparison he is making?

      As admirable as he is, however, I have to add that one reads Beinart differently now that you have highlighted his casual acceptance of this problem:

      “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

      Reply to Comment

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